Turkey’s elections and Pakistan

From student days in Turkey with hospitable Turkish students, studying Turkish history, then since 1969 close friendships with Turkish diplomats in posts around the world, I have experienced that special affinity and affection that is the hallmark of our historical bilateral friendship and mutual support on issues of importance to both countries and throughout national disasters. Two incidents stand out.
In 1964 as an Oxford student after taking the Orient Express to Istanbul and a week with friends; I travelled onward by train to Ankara and beyond to Baghdad where my parents were posted. I shared a compartment with a venerable conservative Turkish couple who spoke no English, but I understood we were going for Hajj, I presumed overland from Baghdad. Before we reached the border, at a train stop some officials came, checked their papers, and escorted them out of the train. The reason was unclear and could have been quite innocent. Over the years especially with the headscarf controversy, I wondered if the pace of Turkey’s remarkable modernization was overstretched. There were two Turkeys, the modern urban element almost indistinguishable from Europe, a large part they had after all ruled for centuries, and a sizable conservative and religious segment.
Some almost 30 years later I was transiting Istanbul airport en route to Ashgabat where I was our first Ambassador. In the lounge, I saw a distinguished elderly man with a retinue of staff and family which included elegantly dressed ladies, all with head scarves. I was told that it was Necmettin Erbakan, a prominent politician. I introduced myself and was warmly welcomed, and as it was the old airport, we got on the same bus though going to different planes. He spoke warmly of Pakistan and of the need for Turkey to have closer relations with Muslim countries. He was Prime Minister in 1996 to 1998 and though his Islamist approach helped mould a series of parties including the Virtue Party which after its banning became the AKP the Justice and Development Party of Erdogan and his colleagues. I sent a report on this chance meeting advising that there was a chance for Pakistan for closer relations with Turkey if it turned away somewhat from its primary objective to join the West in the face of European resistance, and towards Muslim countries.
In the sweep of history, the two decades of the AKA and Erdogan may be seen as an attempt to balance Kemalist modernist policies by giving more recognition and space to the conservative, religious and nationalistic feelings and aspirations of many Turks. Certainly, in these two decades, Turkey has surged ahead economically and in international importance. Though with record inflation the economy is not now doing well. Its nationalist position has annoyed the West, broken with President Asad, and its championing of the Muslim brotherhood alienated Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) opposition party, its five allied parties, the Nation Alliance, and its supporters would argue that the pendulum has not swung to the middle but too much to the right. That Erdogan has centralized power by constitutionally changing to a Presidential system, weakening the independent media and the two historical power centres; the courts which at times had banned Islamist parties as against the secular tenets of the Constitution, and the military which had a strong interventionist role. Several key AKP members and Ministers including a prominent Foreign Minister and a leading Economic minister have left the party with a few joining the opposition.
There was much expectation inside and outside Turkey that in a free and fair election, there was a strong possibility that the combined opposition led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu would win. The first round saw that in the Parliament the AKP and its allies were in a majority with fewer seats than before, and the opposition parties had improved their position. In the Presidential election, Erdogan led but with less than 50% votes, a run-off was held on the 28th of May between the two leading candidates. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is campaigning strongly and calling for an even higher turnout of his supporters to snatch victory. Though the ultra-nationalist third Presidential candidate in the first round has asked his supporters to vote for Erdogan, it remains to be seen who the winner will be.
For Pakistan, our expectation is that the traditionally close relations with Turkey will continue whoever is the choice of the brotherly people of Turkey. There is no gainsaying that in the AKP Erdogan era these past two decades bilateral relations have been top-down driven by the leadership of the two countries. Erdogan has given the Pakistani narrative space in the Turkish media and spoken on Kashmir in the last three UN General Assemblies. Support has been provided in the NSG, FATF and other international fora, including the Human Rights Council. After the 2005 Earthquake and the floods last year, Turkey’s assistance was extraordinary, and we reciprocated after the recent earthquakes in Turkey.
Pakistan for its part has supported Turkey in British Commonwealth discussions and declarations, the Armenian recognition issue, in UNESCO over Armenia: and in the OIC where the TRNC- Turkish Cyprus has observer status, and also in ECO where we supported its observer status.
Pakistan is Turkey’s largest defence equipment buyer. The order for 4 naval Corvettes was for over one billion dollars. Turkey has provided the technology with our defence purchases and entered co-production when we face difficulties in accessing high tech. The Turkish objective in all fields is to enable Pakistan to build up its own capability.
The framework for political and other cooperation rests on the overarching High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC)which has met six times chaired by the Turkish President and Pakistani Prime Minister. It has 7 Ministerial led working groups that work inter-seasonally, on cooperation on; Security and Defence; Energy: Trade and Investment- which has operationalized recently an FTA; Banking and Finance; Transport and Communication; Culture and Tourism; and Education. In 2019 the Joint Economic Strategic Framework identified 71 concrete areas which have been folded into the HLSCC working groups.
However, Pakistan cannot depend forever on Erdogan and his party being in power and on Turkish goodwill at the same pitch. As it is the Turkish Foreign Office leans leftwards towards the ideology of the opposition and would prefer balance in Turkey’s relations in South Asia. It is time Pakistan thought seriously about how to give more substance to this relationship. The HLSCC is a good mechanism, and to our advantage as in all fields Turkey wants to transfer its expertise. The Foreign Office and EAD are our focal points for the process, but their capacity needs to be enhanced for results. A team from both in the Prime Minister’s office would be able to get results as happened for CPEC.
We need to work on the new generation in Turkey so that it develops the same feeling for Pakistan. Some 2,500 Pakistani students are utilizing scholarships, which can be increased if more apply, or attend private institutions. We should give more scholarships to Turkish students and offer more short-term courses to Turkish diplomats and avail of similar courses in Turkey. Our Universities and Think Tanks are lagging in forging links.
Illegal migrants from Pakistan are a problem in Turkey where nationalist opposition to refugees and illegals from Syria and Afghanistan is a major issue. This could well become a major irritant and we need to better guard our porous border which remains a two-way security vulnerability.
We need to diplomatically seek the understanding of opposition leaders. The Mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, and some other main cities belong to the opposition. They are young but from them could come the next Presidential candidate. Key targets to cultivate, perhaps by stepping up twin city links between the main cities in both counties.
One field we have overlooked is peaceful nuclear cooperation. Turkey is completing a set of four Russian nuclear power plants and looking towards more. Hence all its nuclear technical training is with Russia. Our nuclear academic institutes, and expertise in construction, reactor operation, regulation, and safeguards should be offered to Turkey. With its large population and growing attraction as a regional medical hub, we should offer to construct a small, safeguarded reactor for both research and medical isotope production to help make Turkey autonomous in this important medical treatment field. No other country would do that for Turkey.
Full spectrum outreach and strategic and economic depth would increase our relevance to Turkey, its people and bureaucracy, and whichever party was in power.

Ambassador (R) Tariq Osman Hyder

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt